Friday, July 17, 2009

The Sports Hub starts Boston radio war

Although the official launch is not until August 13, a radio war has already broken out in Boston this week when CBS Radio announced it will convert the 98.5FM frequency to an all-sport format to challenge the market's established sports station WEEI AM 850.

While "Toucher and Rich", WBCN's super-popular morning duo are already talking smack and taking shots (pre-requisites for a morning radio job) at WEEI's "Dennis and Callahan" as they finish up their run on WBCN 104.1FM, will they and the new Sports Hub 98.5FM be able to bring it when the clock officially starts next month?

Some say this might end up as a replay of the all-sport fight that resulted in WEEI closing out WWZN AM/Zone 1510 in 2004 and technically fading out WAMG/ESPN 890 out of any contention. But there are number of major factors outside of WEEI's 18-year domination that allowed those challengers to self-destruct on their own. For the Zone 1510, the bad timing was everything. The station launched a month after 9/11 when the last thing people wanted to listen to and talk about was sports. With the economy going bust, the radio advertising dried up quickly. The 9/11 recession quickly followed by the complete burst in the dot-com bubble which in turn cut much of the operational funding from WWZN's corporate owner, former Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen whose business portfolio was heavily invested into on-line media. The only thing that kept WWZN on the radar was the Celtics radio rights. When the Celtics moved their radio rights to Entercom's WRKO in 2005, the Zone immediately became a non-factor, not just in sports programming but on the radio dial in general. As for the ESPN 890 which is somehow still on the air after four years, it has minimal local content(2-hour afternoon call-in show, 4-6pm and a brokered time night recap show 10pm-Midnight) to go with a tricky AM signal reception. Although ESPN Radio's national programming could be a good alternative in small doses, in Boston all sports is local. Always was, always will.

Why does CBS Radio think/know it can succeed with the Sports Hub 98.5? Many reasons and most of them make sense, at least on paper. For one, CBS has already been producing lots of local sports content with Patriots on WBCN and Bruins on WBZ-AM since mid 1990's so bringing two teams onto one signal is a no-brainer. A no-brainer number two, with a clear and crisp FM signal covering the entire Boston market and beyond, the new SportsHub has a potential to reach a lot more ears than any current and/or former WEEI challengers on the AM dial. This one goes under the "marketing/promotional goal" column, but CBS will surely use the local synergy with sister TV station and CBS-affil WBZ/Channel 4. The new SportsHub will be able to tap into WBZ-TV's sports department for any live updates on major breaking or developing local sports stories. CBS can also cross-promote its new sports talker among its other three FM stations and one AM station. On the national level, CBS Radio is heavily invested in sports content. Ths SportsHub will have full access to company's national resources including access to sports media outposts in NYC, LA and everywhere else. CBS also produces radio sports programming which includes college football, college basketball including March Madness, and of ourse entire NFL package from regular season to the Super Bowl(expect the NFL package to shift from WEEI to the new WBZ 98.5FM/SportsHub). On line, is one most popular sports destinations for sports fans on-line.

But the underlying rationale for CBS introducing FM sports format to Boston is, of course, money. Well-run sports radio format has a track record of producing significant advertising revenue even when the audience figures are smaller than other radio formats. Advertisers like to buy time on sports stations because listeners tune in and connect with the format based on emotion, not because they love the personalities. There is also the appeal to advertisers of the sports radio demographic - males 18 to 54 with money to spend. In 2008, WEEI AM 850 was the second most profitable station in the Boston market with $31.2 million in revenues. WBCN 104.1FM which is ending its 41-year run as the result of CBS' local radio shake-up made only $15.1 million.

Sports radio like all radio is entertainment. That is why the morning duo of Toucher and Rich will not be all-sports-all-the-time. Neither is "Dennis and Callahan" show on WEEI if you really sit down and listen. There is enough politcs, current events and pop culture talk on WEEI in the AM morning drive to fill a stadium full of unhappy sports nuts. But it has worked for WEEI and based on Toucher and Rich's ratings on WBCN, CBS hopes it works for the new Sports Hub 98.5.

BRW Notebook :

Don't cry for me WBCN : WBCN tributes/eulogies/analysis of demise have been pouring in from every corner of the media world. Here, here, here and there.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the good analysis. Any idea why they didn't do the logical thing and keep the sports talk on 104.1 BCN/BZ-FM? Seems like needless confusion to slide things around like they are doing. (Great blog, by the way. Looked up Carl DeSuze the other day and realized he wasn't on Wikipedia. Be nice to get all the Boston radio legends posted there eventually.)

Anonymous said...

I'm not an expert, but my understanding is that WBCN's soon-to-be former spot on the dial is a particularly good spot for a music station, due to clarity, etc. In fact, Howard Stern made mention of that on his show last week. That could be the reason why CBS is moving stions around on the dial, to keep a music station on 104.1.

Anonymous said...

I have no loyalty to WEEI. When they are not talking Red Sox I'm gone. I also find their RW politics and slotted regular callers offensive. I tolorate them, but hit the preset often.
If BZ-FM can make listening to bllodthirsty shut-ins a bit less odius, I'm there.

Boston Radio Watch said...

Anon 4:51pm,

Yes, I also heard the same segment Howard did this Wed. about CBS' changes in Boston. Plus, I always love when Howard goes off on CBS. Very entertaining radio. He's right about Seacrest - the guy does brainless radio and he gets paid so much by Clear Channel and Fox(for American Idol), it's absolutely obscene. Seacrest is the face and voice of corporate radio/TV.

(For those of you who don't subscribe to Sirius XM, you can read the transcript from Howard's show which is found by using the link below(it's under Wed. July 15, 6:10am)) :

Howard is 100% correct about the move of Mix to 104.1FM. It's a much stronger frequency with the transmitter on top of the Prudential building.

Mix will be on the Pru just like Kiss 108 and Magic 106.7, both stations directly compete with Mix for the same demo - females 25-54. Mix is slightly younger soccer moms than Magic's, but there's a strong overlap especailly in the office listening. And, Mix has been showing a nice growth after they dumped Lander late last year and brought in Karson and Kennedy in January to replace him. From a signal perspective, CBS puts Mix on the equal footing with Kiss and Magic with a stronger Pru signal. To me CBS' strategy with this swap makes total sense.

They're already promoting both - the swap and the new sports format pretty heavy hoping to keep the listener confusion down to a minimum on Aug. 12 and 13th but it won't be fully avoided, at least initially.

On the sports format, if the Sports Hub even gets 2.0 share by year's end, it'll be a success. It's 2.0 share that WEEI won't have. Anything above that is a big win.

I'm more interested to see where Entercom puts WEEI simulcast on FM on the Boston dial. Part of me thinks they go back to Nassau/Goldman Sachs and re-open talks on WCRB 99.5. Think about it, 99.5 covering Boston, North Metrowest and with current 103.7FM simulcast covering South. Sounds like a good FM set-up.